Monthly Archives: August 2012

Photographing the Marble Mountain Wilderness

Marble Mountain Widerness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Marble Mountain Wilderness offers some of Northern California’s most spectacular hiking and backpacking. And with that comes a myriad of photo opportunities. I’ve made several trips into the Marble Mountains and two things stand out in my mind. First is the incredible beauty that comprises the Marble Mountain Wilderness. Its peaks are stark and rugged and its valleys are green and lush–almost to the point of overwhelming the senses. The second point that sticks out is the high number of bear sightings. I see black bears every time I backpack into the Marbles. On the first occasion, we had just reached Campbell Lake. It was late in the afternoon and we were setting up camp. Suddenly a large male appeared and stood up on his hind legs, sniffing the air, not more than thirty feet away. While black bears are not usually a threat to human beings, I admit to feeling a little nervous with this 6-foot tall, 300 pound animal standing only feet away. A sharp clap of my hands and he was gone. Maneaten Lake is another place I have experienced a high incidence of bears. On my first trip there, we had a bear visit our camp all three nights. Even with the presence of my dog, Waldo, the bear would wander in.

 

Marble Mountain Wilderness

Maneaten Lake (left) is one of the area’s shining jewels. At 112 feet deep, it is the second deepest lake in the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and with its steep granite walls and very little surrounding vegetation, the lake is a gorgeous turquoise blue. One of the most frightening experiences of my life came on a solo trip into Maneaten Lake, when a terrifying lightning storm moved in and completely engulfed me. Lightning flashed 360 degrees. As I was totally exposed, I confess to fearing for my life. In 15 minutes the storm had come and gone. While frightening at times, these are life-enriching experiences. Lightning and bears and isolation put the ‘wild’ in wilderness–and that is what most appeals to me about the Marble Mountains.

There is a peaceful, idyllic quality to the Marbles, as well. I spoke earlier of the area’s lushness. The hike into Sky High and Frying Pan Lakes, via the Red Rock Valley-Little Marble Valley Loop (12 miles/2400′ elev. gain), is a prime example of the lushness and intensity of the greens. Entire hillsides lay covered in corn lilies. The lakes are worthwhile destinations and offer numerous photographic opportunities.

Other worthy hikes include ABCD Lakes (a cluster comprised of Aspen, Buckhorn, Chinquapin, and Dogwood Lakes), and Ukonom Lake, the Wilderness Area’s largest lake with a surface area of 67 acres. It was at Ukonom Lake that we were serenaded by a pack of coyotes during a rainstorm late one night. I was utterly transfixed by the haunting beauty of their chorus. Even Waldo sat silently listening.

The Marble Mountain Wilderness consists of 89 lakes and countless streams and creeks scattered across 241,744 acres. Over 500 species of plants have been identified here–many endemic only to this area. It is home to several rare wildflowers, including the endangered McDonald’s rockcress. You will also find a number of locally rare conifers, including the subalpine fir. Whether your interest is wildflowers, wildlife, or the landscape, the Marble Mountains provide endless possibilities. Some day hikes exist, but to really experience the Marble Mountains, I recommend a multi-day trip (3 days minimum) to anyone who is serious about wanting to photograph this amazing place. Good photos cannot be rushed and having the time to allow the animals to come to you only increases your likelihood of capturing that epic shot. As a photographer, I love hiking solo. I’ve had numerous wildlife experiences because I’m not conversing with other people and I’m more attentive. Dogs are wonderful hiking companions–however, if you’re wanting a photograph of a 300 pound bear sniffing the air, consider leaving Fido with the in-laws. Pack your 300 mm telephoto and a tripod, and be prepared to be surprised.

While many of the popular destinations see high use in the Summer months, crowds drop off exponentially after Labor Day. I made the 26-mile roundtrip into Ukonom Lake in mid-September, and aside from passing a couple of hikers on the trail, we didn’t see another human being for five days–and with the exception of the serenading coyotes, we had the lake completely to ourselves. Don’t forget your wide-angle lens. The views are big in the Marble Mountains.

Many good guidebooks are available, including Marble Mountain Wilderness, by David Green and Greg Ingold (Wilderness Press).

I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.

Until next time, happy image-making…

Bruce

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Photo Tip #3: Photographing People–The Informal Portrait

Photographing People

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The art and aesthetic of portraiture is highly varied and subjective. I love the photojournalistic approach to photographing people–catching them in that unguarded moment. I strive to capture a subject in the act of being him- or herself. As you move through your day-to-day, take note of the portraits that really move you. It is likely that they exude the passion, emotion, and wonder that is intrinsic to being human. The most powerful portraits are those that speak to our own sense of humanness.

The informal portrait is an exercise in patient observation, having the camera ready at all times. Think ahead. Anticipate where any action may occur. Note the light and take meter readings. Think about depth-of-field (see Photo Tip #2: Depth-of-Field). Is the action fast-moving? Does the scene warrant a slow shutter speed and blurred motion to emphasize the action?

I am a minimalist by nature. When in the field, I like to keep gear to a minimum–for a couple of reasons. One–space and weight. I’m often packing the gear while skiing or hiking and want to keep weight down. And two–the more gear you bring, the more likely you are to spend precious time switching from one lens to the next, potentially missing that one-time shot. With my film camera, I carry a maximum of three lenses and usually two. My main lens is a Canon 35-105 mm f/3.5-5.6 macro zoom. Ninety percent of all my photos are taken with this lens. With its high optical quality, the focal range offers many compositional possibilities and works very well for portraits. Generally, 85 to 100 mm focal lengths are considered ideal for portraiture. Anything shorter tends to distort facial features at closer distances. But maybe the portrait is less about the person, per se, and more about their relationship to the landscape. Having the flexibility and convenience of a zoom is indispensable to me. I place a lot of emphasis on composition and a zoom lens makes composing the photograph easy. My second must-carry lens is a Canon 24 mm f/2.8 superwide angle with an 89 degree field of view. I love its sharpness front to back, as well as its distortion of perspective. This lens is compact and fairly lightweight, so I can’t afford to leave it at home. Even though I only use it occasionally, there are times when it’s the only lens for the job. Don’t hesitate to try wide and superwide angle lenses for portraiture. They can be used very creatively. The third lens in my quiver is a Canon 200 mm f/4 telephoto. Another favorite lens. It’s short enough to be hand-held (no image-stabilization) and works well for portraiture. The lens is especially nice in its ability to isolate a subject and produce a soft, diffuse background. Because of its size and weight, this lens may or may not make it into the pack, depending on the situation.

 

Photographing PeopleA word on composition. It is natural to plop the subject dead-center in the middle of the photograph. Sometimes this works, but most of the time it doesn’t. There is a principle called the rule of thirds, in which you divide the picture area into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. Place your subject 1/3 of the way into the picture area and have them walking, running, or skiing into the photograph. This implies forward motion and is simply more visually interesting. Maybe having the subject walking out of the photograph more accurately conveys what you want to say. I will talk more about the rule of thirds in the next Photo Tips. If your friends are standing on the summit of Mount Whitney, don’t cut them off at the ankles–it’s a grave injustice–and they’ll need their feet to get back down. When composing a photograph, try varying the camera angle to exaggerate perspective or create tension. Nobody says the camera must be held perfectly level.

I prefer to shoot portraits hand-held and in natural light. I like being able to shoot on the fly. Fill flash, when handled properly, yields pleasing, natural-looking results. I will cover the use of flash in a future Photo Tips. If you are shooting in low light, try opening up the lens and hand-holding for a second or more. I’ve been rewarded with some very pleasant surprises–images that remain among my favorites–through my willingness to experiment.

Photographing people doesn’t require a predetermined subject. Interesting portraits surround us wherever we are. The Swing (top) was taken at a park playground in my hometown many years ago. Children love to be photographed and are usually willing and able subjects. This particular photograph was taken on Kodak Plus-X (125 ASA black and white) print film. The negative was scanned in the color mode, yielding the magenta cast you see here. I have taken to scanning my black and white negatives in the color mode and then converting them to grayscale images. Sometimes, as with The Swing, I prefer the the color version over its black and white counterpart.

A friend and college instructor used to profess, “The first rule in art is there are no rules.” So have fun. Experiment. And most of all, get out and shoot. The possibilities are limitless.

Please contact me with any questions, comments, or suggestions.

Until next time, happy image-making…

Bruce

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Photo Tip #2: Depth-of-Field

 

Depth-of-Field

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Depth-of-field is defined as that area within a photograph which is in sharp focus. By understanding and implementing a few basic concepts, you can take complete control of your image-making. When you determine depth-of-field manually, you are able to render any scene in a myriad of ways–from isolating a subject against a soft, blurred background to maintaining sharp focus front to back. This lesson on depth-of-field is the second half of understanding exposure (see Photo Tip #1: Determining Exposure).

Let’s review some basics. There is an inverse relationship between aperture (lens opening) and shutter speed (how long light strikes the sensor or film). Once proper exposure has been determined, and you change one setting, you have to adjust the other to compensate for the increase or decrease in light reaching the camera’s sensor. Aperture controls depth-of-field. Large lens openings (f/1.8 or f/2) produce very shallow depth-of-field, that is, only a very limited area is in sharp focus and the rest of the photograph is a soft blur. A small lens opening (f/16 of f/22) will produce sharp focus throughout most or all of the photograph. At different times, one or the other may yield stronger or more pleasing results. You should familiarize yourself with your camera’s depth-of-field preview, which allows you to see what is in focus at a particular aperture before you take the photograph. If your subject is static or posing, you can always take the photograph, view it, and adjust accordingly. But if you’re photographing a fast-paced event, say, a sprinter dashing across the finish line for a gold medal, you may only have a split second and one chance to get your shot. Your depth-of-field preview allows you to pre-determine exactly which areas in the photograph are sharp and which are not–so when the subject moves into position, you are ready to depress the shutter.

Also, you will find a depth-of-field scale on your camera’s lens barrel. It tells you, in feet and meters, what area is in sharp focus at all the various f-stops. Using my 50 mm f/1.8 lens, if I focus on a subject 10 feet away with an aperture setting of f/4, the area in sharp focus, according to my scale, is between about 9 and 12 feet. If I stop down to f/16, that area in sharp focus increases to between approximately 6.5 and 28 feet, for a much greater depth-of-field. Keep in mind that by stopping down to f/16, you have decreased your exposure by 4 stops, and so you need to reduce (slow) your shutter speed, and/or increase your ISO setting a total of 4 stops. That is, if you are shooting with an ISO of 100 at 1/1000 second at f/4, you need to set your shutter to 1/60 second–or increase the ISO setting (from ISO 100 to 1600, etc.) to compensate for a much smaller lens opening

A lens’ focal length also affects depth-of-field. The shorter the focal length, the greater the depth-of-field. The longer the focal length, the shallower the depth-of-field. I have a 24 mm f/2.8 super-wide angle lens (89 degree field of view) that I use with my film camera. I love the lens for its sharpness throughout the image area, even wide open. I also love it for its distortion, which becomes more exaggerated as you move closer to the subject.

 

Depth-of-Field

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the above photo, Fly on a Leaf, I used a 200 mm f/4 Canon lens with a small (12 mm) extension tube to increase magnification. Telephoto lenses have an inherently shallow depth-of-field and are wonderful for isolating a subject. Using the extension tube allowed me to magnify the subject (in this case, the fly) and still maintain enough distance to preserve a soft, pleasing background.

The final factor that determines depth-of-field is the distance between camera and subject. Using the same example as above, if I am shooting a subject 10 feet away at f/4, the area in sharp focus lies between approximately 9 and 12 feet. If my subject is 30 feet away at f/4, that area in sharp focus is between approximately 23 and 45 feet. The basic premise is: when you focus on a subject, 1/3 of the area that is sharp falls in front of the subject and 2/3 falls behind it. So needless to say, when you start getting very close to a subject–using extension tubes or macro lenses–depth-of-field is sometimes a fraction of an inch. This can provide for all kinds of interesting challenges. At such high magnification, or with long telephoto lenses, you want to use a tripod and cable release. Exposures are often long, and it’s easier to focus and compose the photograph, and it assures that critical areas will be sharp.

The top photo, Pebble Creek, Yellowstone, was taken using a 35-105 mm f/3.5 zoom on my (tripod-mounted) Canon film camera. I zoomed wide, stopped way down for increased depth-of-field, and used a slow shutter speed to soften the flowing water. Fly… was shot hand-held. The fly wasn’t going to stick around long enough for me to set up a tripod, so I seized the moment. Notice the telephoto’s ability to isolate the subject using shallow depth-of-field. This works well with both portraiture and photographing wildflowers.

A note on tripods and image-stabilization: Turn off the image-stabilizer when mounting the camera on a tripod. When shooting long exposures (1/15 second or slower), I recommend turning off your camera’s autofocus and focusing manually, and then locking up your mirror. Remember to bracket.

I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.

Until next time, happy image-making…

Bruce

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Castle Crags–Our Own Little Piece of Yosemite

Castle Crags

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Castle Crags, even after 31 years, remains a very special place for me. Upon moving here in 1981, it was the Crags that captured my photographic attention, not Mount Shasta. There is something very commanding about those granite spires rising more than 4000 feet above the valley floor. The complexity of this outcropping offers a lifetime of exploration and more. The Crags/Indian Springs Trail is a strenuous 2.7 mile trek (one-way) that gains 2250 feet in elevation and ends at the base of Castle Dome. For those of you able to make this hike, you will be rewarded for your efforts with spectacular views of the spires, the dome itself, as well as neighboring Mount Shasta. The Root Creek Trail is a moderate one-mile hike (one-way), largely through the forest canopy, which offers occasional views of the Crags themselves, before terminating at Root Creek. The Pacific Crest Trail also provides a variety of stunning perspectives.

Formed some 200 million years ago, Castle Crags is the result of many forces, including wind, rain, and glaciation, which have scoured and polished the granite spires we see today.

 

Castle Crags

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never tire of spending time in Castle Crags. The photographic opportunities are infinite. I have witnessed Peregrine falcons mating in flight at the base of Castle Dome. I have seen a Northern Pacific rattler literally leap three feet through the air onto the trail and quickly coil, ready to strike. You never know what you might encounter here. Because of its relatively low elevation, the trails in Castle Crags remain open much of the year. Springs and creeks run full in the Spring. Wildflower blooms last into Summer and include azaleas, tiger lilies, Indian paintbrush, and wild iris. Black oaks, dogwoods, and vine and big-leaf maples provide colorful displays in the Fall.

To book a photo tour in Castle Crags, or a number of other area locations, contact me.

I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.

Until next time, happy image-making…

Bruce

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Photo Tip #1: Determining Exposure

Determining Exposure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTO TIP #1: Turn off the Automatic Mode.

This is the first step in taking control of your image-making. Don’t let the camera make critical exposure decisions for you. In this easy lesson, you will gain an overview of light, the camera’s metering system, and accurately determining exposure. This is photography’s most basic precept and with a little practice it will quickly become second nature.

Let’s start with what is commonly referred to as the exposure triangle–which consists of your ISO (light sensitivity), aperture (lens opening), and shutter speed. There is an interrelationship between these three components and when you change one setting, it directly affects the other two. A camera’s ISO settings range from 50 (the least sensitive), 100, 200, 400, 800, etc…up to as high as 25,600, for extremely low-light situations. Changing your ISO setting from 100 to 200, increases the exposure by 1 stop. Reducing your ISO setting from, say, 400 to 200, decreases exposure by 1 stop. The general rule is to use as low an ISO setting as conditions allow to reduce unwanted noise in the image. Aperture refers to the size of the lens opening (f-stop). Your f-stop determines the amount of light reaching the sensor or film plane. Full stops range from f/1.8 (wide open), 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, up to f/22 or f/32 (smallest opening). Stopping down from f/8 (larger) to f/16 (smaller) results in a 2-stop decrease in exposure, and so you must reduce your shutter speed and/or increase the ISO setting a total of 2 stops.  Shutter speed is the amount of time that the shutter is open and allowing light to hit the sensor. Settings on a digital SLR generally range from 30 seconds up to 1/8000 second. A slow shutter speed requires a smaller aperture to compensate for a longer exposure time. A fast shutter speed requires a larger lens opening to allow for a decreased exposure time. For example, if you are shooting a sporting event at an ISO of 100 with a lens opening of f/11 at 1/125 second and you want to increase your shutter speed to 1/500 second to freeze the action, you have reduced the amount of light you are letting in by 2 stops. Increasing your shutter speed from 1/125 to 1/250 second reduces your exposure 1 stop, and increasing it to 1/500 second reduces the exposure by another stop, for a total of 2 stops. To adjust for the decrease, it is necessary to open the lens and/or increase the ISO setting 2 stops. In this case, I would choose to open the lens 1 stop, from f/11 to f/8, and increase the ISO setting 1 stop, from ISO 100 to ISO 200. This allows me to maintain a relatively small aperture for increased depth-of-field and sharp focus with minimum noise.

A brief word on depth-of-field. The term depth-of-field refers to the area within the picture that is in sharp focus. In general, the smaller the lens opening (f/22 or f/32), the greater the depth-of-field. The larger the lens opening (f/1.4 or f/1.8), the shallower the depth-of-field. When you focus directly on your subject, the depth-of-field begins 1/3 in front of your subject and ends 2/3 behind it–that is, if you’ve determined your depth-of-field to be 9 feet, that area of sharp focus begins 3 feet in front of the subject and ends 6 feet behind it. I will talk more about depth-of-field in a future Photo Tips post.

The Gray Card and Determining Exposure

The average scene you encounter is calculated to have a light reflectivity of 18%, and so the camera’s light meter is calibrated to this 18% reflectivity. This is well and good, but the majority of scenes are not average, and if you rely on the Automatic setting, you will likely get average results, and most of the time. Have you ever taken a photo of a snow-covered landscape, to find that the snow is rendered a dingy gray tone? In the days of film, this was always a horrific discovery. Of course, with digital technology the results are instantaneous and so you can view the image and adjust accordingly. The camera’s meter is not able to determine when a particular scene deviates from this 18% reflectivity, such as sunlit snow, which may have an 80 or 90% reflectivity–or a dark object, which may have little-to-no reflection at all. The meter is always going to assign these things a tonal value of 18%.

An 18% Gray Card allows you to accurately determine exposure in any lighting condition. They are available at B & H PhotoVideo, or any camera supplier. To use the Gray Card, you simply point your camera in the direction of your intended subject. You then place the card in front of the camera lens until it just fills your viewfinder. It is imperative that your subject and gray card receive the same illumination. If your subject is in full sun, the gray card must also be reflecting full sun. Take your reading. You may choose to fine-tune your exposure by bracketing 1/2 to 1 stop.

A little trick I use while skiing is to meter directly off the snow. In bright light conditions, I will take my reading in the same direction and light as my intended subject, and then open the lens 2 stops and bracket. On overcast days, I will meter off the snow and open 1 to 1-1/2 stops, depending on the intensity of the light. You can also meter off the palm of your hand and open 1 stop. I have a lens cleaning cloth that doubles as a Gray Card. It’s very compact and extremely lightweight. For minimalists such as myself, it’s the perfect solution. Eventually, through using the gray card repeatedly, you will learn to recognize objects with an approximate 18% tonal value, allowing you to meter on the fly.

Please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or suggestions.

Until next time, happy image-making…

Bruce

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